We’ve seen this act before. On Friday, President Donald Trump bashed CNN during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May. After Trump responded to a question from NBC by suggesting the network was “possibly worse than CNN,” Jim Acosta tried to get a word in. Trump refused to acknowledge his query, saying, “CNN is fake news. I don’t take questions from CNN. John Roberts of Fox. Let’s go to a real network.” Instead of defending his fellow journalist in the moment, Roberts demurred and asked his question.
The moment was reminiscent of Trump’s pre-inauguration press conference in which another showdown with Acosta and attack on CNN failed to draw a response from journalists in attendance. In a pressure-packed environment, where reporters from dozens of outlets are competing to get their voices heard, it may be asking a lot to demand that journalists stop and consider the greater implications of Trump’s attacks. But we’ve been in this situation before.
RELATED: January, 2017—Trump berated a CNN reporter, and fellow journalists missed an opportunity
The lack of action from Roberts drew criticism from several journalists who felt he could have done more. “Old enough to remember when other networks came to the defense of Fox News WH correspondents during the Obama years,” tweeted CNN’s Jake Tapper, who stood up for Fox when he was ABC’s White House Correspondent. “Such did not happen here.”
On Friday afternoon, Roberts issued a belated defense, telling The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple that NBC’s Kristen Welker is “honest as the day is long.” He added that he used to work at CNN, and that “there are some fine journalists who work there and risk their lives to report on stories around the world. To issue a blanket condemnation of the network as ‘fake news’ is also unfair.”
That’s fine, but in the moment—as President Trump stood on foreign soil and slandered the legitimacy of one of America’s biggest news outlets just days before he was to meet with a Russian leader who has allowed the harassment and murder of journalists in his country to go largely unchallenged—Roberts and his colleagues failed to push back.
When Trump employed the same tactic days before taking offices, I wrote:
Journalism is a competitive business, but it’s not a zero-sum game. We all campaign for scoops, access, and sources, but we are, effectively, on the same side. If Trump ignores or blacklists outlets he deems hostile, and others in the industry don’t defend them, the public loses out on the perspective those reporters bring, and we as an industry lose out in our efforts to hold power accountable.
Back then, the absence of a coordinated response was more understandable. Despite a campaign in which he regularly attacked the press, Trump-as-president was a new phenomenon. Now, 18 months later, we’re familiar with this schtick. Trump’s willingness to single out specific new organizations as “fake news,” and to refuse their questions on the world stage, demands action. This won’t be the last time the president attacks an outlet for the act of asking a question. By now, journalists should be prepared to respond.
Below, more on Trump, CNN, and a media-bashing world tour.
- Fallout from the confrontation: The White House pulled National Security Advisor John Bolton from a scheduled appearance on CNN as punishment for Acosta’s “bad behavior,” according to Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.
- Bolton’s dismissal: Bolton ended up on ABC, where Jonathan Karl questioned whether Trump’s attacks on news organizations contribute to an environment in which leaders around the globe feel free to censor the free press. “I think the question is silly,” Bolton responded.
- Trump’s global audience: “Nonstop denigration of journalists has become an indelible part of the Trump presidency, so routine that it threatens to recede into the background noise of this chaotic administration, a low hum lost in the racket,” writes The New York Times’s Michael M. Grynbaum. “But in taking his act on the road, Mr. Trump gave a fresh audience a front-row seat to his treatment of the press. The spectacle of a president bashing his nation’s news organizations on foreign soil—in scenes broadcast live around the world—was a reminder of how Mr. Trump’s conduct with journalists can still shock.”
On to Helsinki
As this newsletter publishes, President Trump is speaking with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland. All of the broadcast networks and cablers have anchors and reporters on the ground, and today’s coverage will surely be dominated by analysis of the summit. The Justice Department’s indictments of 12 Russian intelligence agents on Friday threw a curveball into the proceedings, highlighting the disconnect between the president’s embrace of Putin and his administration’s tough action on Russia.
On the way from Scotland to Helsinki, Trump once again called “much of” the media “the enemy of the people” while congratulating Putin for Russia’s hosting of the World Cup. The president’s first two interviews after the summit will be with Fox News opinion hosts Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, promising safe spaces for Trump to push his version of the meeting (Hannity will air his interview tonight, Carlson on Tuesday). Putin, meanwhile, will also be on Fox, but he’ll be questioned by one of the network’s journalists. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace has promised that no subject will be off limits in his conversation with the Russian president.
Trump will also sit down with CBS Evening News anchor Jeff Glor back in Washington on Wednesday for the second of a two-part interview. Glor spoke with Trump on Saturday in Scotland, where Trump referred to the European Union as “a foe.” The CBS interview is notable in part because it is Trump’s first network sit-down in more than a year. Last May, of course, his conversation with Lester Holt, in which Trump admitted he was thinking of the Russian probe when he fired James Comey, helped lead to the appointment of the special counsel.
As we wait for the first reports on the substance of the summit, Axios’s Jonathan Swan has a bunch of background on the Trump–Putin relationship, including new reporting on their most contentious conversation, in his weekly “Sneak Peek” newsletter.
Other notable stories
- The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues that, in any other administration, the appointment of former Fox News executive Bill Shine to a senior White House position would have been a major controversy. Noting that Shine left Fox under a cloud of accusations that he had not acted on alleged knowledge of sexual harassment at the network, and that his wife posted conspiracy theories on social media, Sullivan writes that “most of the nation—along with most of the news media—shrugged it off.”
- The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press released a special report on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, analyzing his opinions on issues of interest to journalists such as national security, defamation, privacy, FOIA, and government transparency.
- For CJR, Ramya Krishnan writes that a recent disclosure from the Justice Department in response to questions about the administration’s animosity toward leaks and the journalists who publish them “does little to quell fears that this crackdown will damage journalists’ ability to protect their sources and shine a torch on government misconduct.”
- BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel writes that “Sacha Baron Cohen—a consummate troll himself—is a perfect foil to the current political climate of grift and trolling.” The comedian behind Ali G and Borat is back this week with a Showtime series, Who Is America?, that takes aim at our current political climate. A bootleg clip of the first episode, featuring current and former members of congress advocating for a fictional program to arm kindergarteners, has already made waves on social media.
- The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani reports that John Amato, the CEO of Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter who was forced out last week, was being investigated for harassing employees and engaging in other misconduct.